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Federal courts to close on Fridays if shutdown continues

January 24, 2019

Federal courts will be closed on Fridays beginning the week of Feb. 4, and most court employees will be reporting to work only three days a week if the partial government shutdown continues, court officials said Thursday.

Since the shutdown began Dec. 22, the courthouses in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven have remained open, though staff employed by the Executive Branch have not received paychecks.

Only the most urgent civil cases are going forward, and there is no money to pay jurors or the private attorneys who contract with the government to represent indigent defendants, according to Robin Tabora, clerk of the U.S. District Court. She said the 60 people who work for her and the 65 law clerks and other support staff who work for judges have continued to be paid using the proceeds from filing fees and funds budgeted but not spent in previous fiscal years.

But that funding source is set to run out, too, and if the impasse in Washington continues until Jan. 31, it appears that only appointed officials, including 14 U.S. District judges and five federal magistrates, will receive paychecks. 

U.S. Attorney John H. Durham, whose office is part of the Executive Branch, said 85 of the 115 staff are working full time without pay, including assistant U.S. attorneys and support staff. Protection of the homeland and violent crimes remain the priorities, he said. Most civil cases are on hold, with the chief of that division handling the most urgent files.

Investigative efforts have been impacted, Durham said.

“For example, if we’re looking at drug trafficking organizations and there’s no money available to do controlled purchases, we get stymied there,” he said. “In other instances, if we’re doing work with ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) and want to purchase firearms, if there are no funds available, we can’t do that. Same with the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). There are going to be limits on what we can do.”

Out-of-state travel for witness interviews has been truncated, Durham said, and training has been suspended.

Durham said he’s been speaking weekly with Rod Rosenstein to discuss funding and priorities.

“The people who work in the U.S. attorney’s office — and I’ve been doing it over 35 years — whether it’s lawyers or paralegals or support staff, most come to work because of the mission of the office,” Durham said. “Thus far, people are not happy with the situation but most are dedicated to the mission.”

One employee who joined the staff recently left because she wasn’t in a position to go without paychecks, Durham said. Over the long term, he said the prolonged shutdown could damage recruiting efforts. He said his office employs highly skilled lawyers, some of whom could be making double or triple the salary in the private sector.

Brian Turner, special agent in charge of the FBI in Connecticut, had been scheduled to do a “meet and greet” with members of the New London NAACP when the shutdown occurred. The meeting was postponed but will be rescheduled, according to Charles Grady, community outreach specialist for the FBI.

“FBI operations are directed towards national security and violations of federal law, and must be able to continue during a lapse in appropriations,” Grady said a statement. “As such, all FBI agents and support personnel in field offices are considered excepted from furlough. As always, anyone who has information or would like to provide a tip is encouraged to reach out to their local FBI field office or go to tips.fbi.gov.”

Tabora, the clerk of Connecticut federal courts, said it’s hard to say how the shutdown will impact court operations over the long term. She said judges have been granting extensions to furloughed civil attorneys, and that it’s hard to know how many new cases would have come in, had the FBI, DEA and other agencies not been furloughed.

She said the court closures on Fridays, if the partial shutdown lasts, would help U.S. marshals, maintenance staff and others who have continued to work without pay. She said she would be increasing the number of days that certain staff could work from home to prevent them from having to pay for gas, and that on-the-job travel from site to site would be limited.

“We hope to see an end to this sometime next week,” Tabora said. 

k.florin@theday.com

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